In Face of Protest, Oxford University Won't Remove Statue of British Imperialist


For months, students at Oxford University have been protesting Oriel College's statue of Cecil Rhodes, and when the college's governing body agreed to consider the statue's removal, the students had reason to hope.

But on Thursday those hopes were dashed: Rhodes, a British imperialist from the 1800s and namesake for the Rhodes Scholarship, will remain where he is, mounted on the facade of the College's High Street building.

In the late 1800s, Rhodes, with his mercantile company the British South Africa Company, colonized the southern African territory that became Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). His eponymous scholarship fund was established in 1902 after his death and continues to give foreign students the opportunity to study at Oxford University.

In a statement posted to the school's website, college officials said they received over 500 written responses expressing support for maintaining the statue. The college's compromise is to "provide clear historical context to explain why it is there," and to do the same for a plaque dedicated to Rhodes in another location on campus. 

"The College believes the recent debate has underlined that the continuing presence of these historical artifacts is an important reminder of the complexity of history and of legacies still felt today," the statement read.

But for the student organization Rhodes Must Fall — which also has a branch at the University of Cape Town, where students battled a similar issue, and won — this simply won't do. In a Facebook post, RMF members promised, "This is not over. We will be redoubling our efforts and meeting over the weekend to discuss our next actions." The group called the decision "outrageous, dishonest and cynical."

According to the Telegraph, the "overwhelming" support of which the governing body speak in its statement was called into question. Documents leaked to the news outlet revealed wealthy alumni had canceled £1.5 million (roughly $2.1 million) in donations over the controversy. What's more, says the paper, the college has a £100 million (roughly $142.5 million) gift hanging in the balance that motivated its decision to keep the Rhodes statue.

The statement issued by the college on Friday dismissed the claims as "categorically not true."

Schalk van Zuydam/AP

Oxford doctoral student and Rhodes Must Fall member Brian Kwoba told the Guardian, "The significance of taking down the statue is simple: Cecil Rhodes is the Hitler of southern Africa. Would anyone countenance a statue of Hitler?" He called the memorialization of Rhodes was evidence "of Britain's imperial blind spot."

At odds with critiques like Kwoba's are those which advocate for symbols like the Rhodes statue to remain untouched for the sake of historical memory. 

Sir Alan Haselhurst, a member of Parliament who also read law at Oriel, said in an interview with the Daily Mail, "We are not proud of absolutely everything that happened in our past, but we cannot erase it all."